Progress in core academic subjects was mixed last school year among Lowcountry students, test scores released Tuesday by the S.C. Department of Education showed, with some districts outpacing state averages while others lagged behind.

Statewide, students in the Palmetto State continue to struggle to make gains academically, with more students failing to perform at or above their grade level in several subjects, according to the results of the state Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, know as PASS.

All the state's third- through eighth-graders take the PASS exam in five subject areas: writing, English language arts (reading and research), math, science and social studies. The Education Department declined to immediately comment on the test results and is expected to release analysis and comment Wednesday.

Melanie Barton, executive director of the Education Oversight Committee, called the results "disheartening." Barton said declines in English language arts and math were not unexpected because of changes in the PASS exam related to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. South Carolina is in the process of replacing the federal Common Core standards with its own.

What was disturbing, Barton said, was declines in science and social studies where there were no changes in the standards or the PASS test.

"That's more troublesome," Barton said. "I don't have an answer for that."

Statewide, the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards declined in more than half of the content areas tested. The biggest declines were in sixth-grade English language arts where the number of students who met or exceeded the standards went down from 74.4 percent last year to 69.3 percent. Scores in seventh grade English took a similar hit with students who met or exceeded the standards declining from 73.2 percent to 68.1 percent.

Similar declines were seen in most subject areas. The biggest improvement was in fifth grade writing where the number of students who met or exceeded the standards went up from 74.5 percent to 80.8 percent.

Barton said other states that have implemented Common Core standards and assessments have seen a decline in test results due to an increase in academic rigor. While a drop in scores is not unexpected, Barton said the new test scores reveal where there are the biggest achievement gaps among students, particularly minority students.

The number of black students meeting third-grade English language arts standards declined from 73.5 percent to 67.3 percent and the number of Hispanic students meeting standards for the same subject and grade also declined from 77.1 percent to 71.4 percent. White students' scores only declined two percentage points to 87.3 percent.

"You see the gaps forming and unfortunately they're forming around students who are historically underachieving," Barton said.

Berkeley County School District

Student performance in Berkeley County schools was a mixed bag of small declines in English language arts and science, and slight improvement in math, writing and social studies.

Kevin O'Gorman, associate superintendent of instruction and accountability for Berkeley County schools, attributes the decline in English language arts and math to changes to the PASS exam related to Common Core standards, which O'Gorman said makes comparing this year's test results with the previous years' results difficult.

"Any time that you're changing standards and changing assessments over a one-year period, you can start to question the validity of that assessment," O'Gorman said.

Dorchester District 2

Students in Dorchester District 2 outperformed the state averages in every subject and nearly every grade.

"Teachers here deliver time and time again," said Dorchester 2 schools Superintendent Joe Pye.

Students outperformed state averages in English language arts with 86.7 percent of third-graders performing at or above grade level compared with 78.9 percent statewide. Similar results were seen in third-grade math where 78.9 percent of students performed at or above grade level compared with 71.6 percent statewide.

Pye said while changes in the state's standards and assessments can make it difficult to determine what the data means, he's pleased the district is outpacing the state.

"Overall I felt very good about it," he said.

Dorchester District 4

Dorchester District 4 made gains over the previous year, but still fell short of matching state averages. A total of 58.5 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above their grade level in English language arts which is well below the state average for that grade and subject of 67.3 percent. But the score is up over last year when only 49.3 percent of students met the standards. The district also saw improvement in eighth-grade math where 69.5 percent of students met the standards compared with 58.6 percent last year. The score for eighth-grade math still falls short of the state average of 71.6 percent.

Dorchester 4 schools Superintendent Morris Ravenell said he's still analyzing the data but is encouraged by a preliminary review of the numbers.

"I'm pretty confident we didn't slide back any," he said. "I think we did make improvements."

Charleston

Students in Charleston county generally outperformed state averages, but saw some declines in performance from the previous year. District English language arts scores declined in several grades including third-grade where students performing at or above grade level declined from 84.3 percent to 81 percent. Sixth- and seventh-grade scores in English language arts also declined.

The number of students meeting third-grade math standards increased from 70 percent to 72.9 percent but declined in the fourth grade from 81.5 percent to 77.1 percent.

Jason Sakran, spokesman for the Charleston County School District, said no one with the district was available to comment on the test scores Tuesday and that the district would release a statement Wednesday.

For complete test scores go to https://www.ed.sc.gov/data/pass/2014/

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.